Teresa MacBain: From Methodist Minister to Atheist Advocate

This is an article by Pamela Whissel. It appears in the 4th Quarter 2012 issue of American Atheist Magazine. American Atheist is available at Barnes & Noble and Book World bookstores in the US and Chapters Indigo bookstore in Canada. You can subscribe to the magazine by clicking here.

“Here I am. A pastor and an Atheist. This has to be the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. I look forward to the day when I can hop in my car and leave god in the rearview mirror. I have a plan. I’m working hard to get out. But for now I must remain in hiding. My time will come and then I can be real for a change!”

Teresa MacBain writing as “Lynn,” February 12, 2012, on AgnosticPastor.wordpress.com.

“I’m a clergyperson. My nametag says Lynn. But I want to let you know something that the Atheist community hasn’t known yet. My name is Teresa. I live in Florida. I’m a pastor currently serving a Methodist church — at least up to this point — and I am an Atheist.”

Teresa MacBain, speaking as Teresa MacBain, March 26, 2012, American Atheists National Convention, Bethesda, Maryland.

“Former Pastor Teresa MacBain Now American Atheists Public Relations Director”

American Atheists press release, July 23, 2012.

It would be fun to say that if Teresa hadn’t come along, we would have had to invent her. But American Atheists isn’t an organization that needs to invent beings who are too good to be true. Real people, with real stories and faith in reason, are more than enough.

The reaction by news organizations to her coming out is proof of that. She made headlines at many levels. Her local news station treated it like a scandal. National reports were objective for the most part, yet they presented her as a curiosity more than anything. Here, in her own words, she demonstrates that coming out of the Atheist closet is not the end of the world. It’s the end of just one of many possible worlds. She may not believe in life after death anymore, but she’s a firm believer in life after faith.

Teresa MacBain

Teresa was raised in a fundamentalist Baptist home in Alabama. Her father was a minister. Growing up, she knew she was meant to be a minister as well. She attended a Baptist college in Birmingham and then went on to Duke University’s Divinity School. She was “100% sold out for god.” With her first full-time pastorate at age 30, she was filled with excitement — she was going to change the world for Christ! If she wasn’t a true believer, then no one was. She was on fire for god as much as anyone she knew. But along the way, something went very, very right.

She first noticed Biblical inaccuracy and contradictions as a young teen. “I remember studying the book of 1 Corinthians. I caught the Apostle Paul in a contradiction! In chapters 12-14, Paul is giving instructions on church issues. Paul gives the instruction that ‘women are to keep silent in church,’ but then he says, ‘when a woman prays or prophecies in church with her head uncovered, she dishonors her head.’ I brought this issue to my dad and asked him which one was correct. He simply told me that God’s ways are higher than our ways. As humans, we can’t begin to understand God and this must be taken by faith. So, I tried to ignore the questions — but they refused to remain hidden!”

She had been dealing with such contradictions for many years when she started thinking about hell. She wanted to figure out which of the many theological interpretations of hell was true. Ironically, a Christian book was her biggest help in moving away from any belief in hell. Love Wins, by Rob Bell, examines the theology of hell. His conclusions were what pushed her to examine the theology further. It wasn’t a huge leap from his book to throwing hell away for good.

The final two steps in what she calls her “ascent to Atheism” occurred almost simultaneously. “First was the issue of religions. After struggling for so many years and coming to the conclusion that the Bible is not accurate and hell is not real, I started thinking about all the different religions in the world. I still had a belief in God at that point, and I still believed that all this exploratory work would make me a better Christian.

“One day, as I was driving to church, I thought to myself, ‘If God created the world with such variety, why would God limit the knowledge of himself to one religion? At that moment, I moved from a belief that Christianity was the only way to find God, to believing that no matter what path you took, you would find God.

“At this time, I was also dealing with the issue of evil. This is one of those things that most of us have attempted to make peace with at some point in our lives. As I fought with the idea of a literal hell and eternal torment, I began to see the problems with all the suffering in the world as well. How could any deity allow their ‘children’ to endure horrific violence, needless suffering, and even torture without acting to assist them?

“I considered my own children. My sons are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, yet even when they had gotten into a lot of trouble, I never considered using torture or extreme violence to teach them a lesson. If I, as a human parent, couldn’t harm my child in that way, then how could a loving deity?

“A work by Epicurus drove the final nail in the coffin of my faith for me:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

“That last line did me in. I realized, in that moment, that this quest to find knowledge and understanding had taken me from being a devout believer to being an Atheist. I no longer believed — I couldn’t believe! Looking back, I think I had been an Atheist for a long time; I was just unwilling to accept that fact. When you believe something so strongly, when you’ve been immersed in your faith your entire life, when it is just as much a part of you as your arms, or legs, or fingers, then the acknowledgement of change is a very hard pill to swallow. I didn’t want to lose my faith. I didn’t want to change or stop believing, but I wanted truth more!

“Once I realized that my faith was gone, I began working on my exit strategy. I took a second job for a while to pay off a few bills. My desire was to get our family on a more secure footing before I walked away. I worked diligently, spending every penny on furthering my goal.

“My final year of ministry was full of reading books related to the issues I was struggling with. As I progressed from Christian to deist, to agnostic, I had the overwhelming need to connect with another person who was facing these same struggles. I had no idea if there were any others like me, but I had to find out.

“One Monday morning last July, I entered ‘clergy who think they’re losing their faith’ into a search engine. Dan Barker’s book godless popped up first. I immediately downloaded it to my Kindle. I read it in record time and then called the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s contact number on the last page.

“Dan himself called me back within the hour and we had a very long conversation. He invited me to join The Clergy Project, a new online support group for clergy who no longer hold supernatural beliefs, and I did so immediately.

“I spent hours on the site after that day. There were only 60 of us when I joined, and we each shared our struggles with each other. At the time, I couldn’t believe there were as many as 60 pastors out there who had lost their belief in god! Today, we have over 340 members and are still growing. I think we’re only at the tip of the iceberg.

“On March 18, 2012, I stepped down from my pulpit for the last time. I knew that the farce could not continue. My sanity was slipping away, day by day, as I struggled to deal with my loss of faith and the very real issue of leaving the ministry. I was at the end of my rope, physically and emotionally, and I couldn’t do it anymore.

“A few days after that I was at the American Atheists convention, attending as my online pseudonym, ‘Lynn.’ Initially I had planned only to attend the convention. But in a strange turn of events, the opportunity to be a speaker and come out publicly presented itself. I reasoned that standing in front of the crowd would do one major thing: get the word out to my fellow Atheist clergy!

“That was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back for me. Realizing that simply taking the stage, as I had done for many years, and being open with this group of people, would open the door for many others trapped in the pulpit. I had the chance to give them the courage to come out as well. I knew I had to do it!

“I fought anxiety from the moment I found out I would be speaking. I had no idea what was going to happen when I stepped up on stage and shared my story. My intent was to speak for 20 minutes, detailing my journey. But once I was at the podium, looking out at the faces of everyday people just like me, I was overwhelmed with guilt for the way I had treated Atheists in the past. In that moment, I tossed aside my notes and simply apologized to all the people that I had hurt with my actions in the past.

“As I poured my heart out before several hundred strangers, I experienced one of the most powerful feelings I’ve ever felt: acceptance. The faces staring back at me were not glaring, angry faces. They were compassionate, emotional, loving faces. In retrospect, I realize that my treatment at the hands of Atheists has been much more (pardon the language)‘Christ-like’ than that of Christians.”

Teresa’s entire speech is on YouTube… The following is a portion of what she told her fellow Atheists.

“First of all I want to apologize to all of you. I was one of those crazy fundamentalists, right-wingers, haters. That’s the only word I can use for it. I want to say that I’m sorry to each of you for knocking on your door — you know what I’m talking about — trying to weasel my way in so I could convince you how wrong you were and how right I was.

“I want to apologize for verbally abusing you from the pulpit; for using the pulpit as a bully pulpit to just… hate. I can’t think of a better word for it: hating. I want to apologize to you for believing that you were godless, heathen, slimy, immoral, and drunken.

“I never knew anything about you. I had never seen any of your faces. You were just ‘those people.’ I was the one on the right track, and you were the ones who were going to burn in hell. And I’m happy to say as I stand before you right now, I’m gonna burn with you! I have lived with guilt and with god as a taskmaster for 44 years. No more.

“It’s a scary thing — I guess that goes without saying — to stand before you, but not because of you. Isn’t that amazing? You all are offering me the most humbling experience of my life. You are offering me love and acceptance without judgment. I’ve been a preacher. I have been evil to you. And yet, I see tears, I see nods, I see love. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like this before. Thank you so much.”

After the convention, Teresa went home to resign as pastor of her church. She was honest with her superiors and her congregation. She felt they were worthy of the truth. The commandment about not bearing false witness against her neighbor still makes sense to her, even if the rest of the Bible doesn’t. She found out that while it’s a sin in her church to bear false witness, hating a bearer of the truth is not.

“The fallout was immediate and devastating. The church, where I had pastored for over three years, changed all the locks and would not let me on the property to collect my belongings. It took over two months to get them to return my things. The local news ran my story for three weeks, garnering thousands of online comments. I received hateful emails, voicemails, letters, and facebook posts and messages. My son’s friends would not have anything to do with him because I was his mother, and many of my husbands co-workers came to him offering their ‘sympathy.’ One even asked him when we were getting a divorce!

“Many messages were from people who desired to see me suffer physically. One man, whom I had served with on a three-day spiritual retreat, left me a voice mail saying, ‘I can’t wait to look down on you in hell and watch the flesh burn off your body.’ Wow! That’s Christian love in action!

“Coming out definitely has a price. It has cost me almost everything, but I wouldn’t go back. I’m happy to be out, to be free, to live openly and honestly. The answers to the issues we all face are contained in our ability to reach out and help one another, not in praying to some mysterious force, hoping for that deity to swoop in and save the day.

“I don’t think I had any expectations about coming out except that I would be living an honest life that didn’t include preaching lies. I’m still the same person with all the same hang-ups; I’m just able to be open about who I am now. I have such peace, knowing that ‘I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.’”

You can subscribe to the Teresa MacBain channel on YouTube and follow her on Twitter at @Teresamacbain and on Facebook. She blogs at AgnosticPastor.WordPress.com. You can reach her office at tmacbain@atheists.org.

Pamela Whissel is the editor of American Atheist Magazine.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.